NYU Center: New Addition to Growing Academic Field

By Nacha Cattan

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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A $3.5 million center for modern Israel studies is about to open atNew York University, the latest addition to a burgeoning academic field about Israel.

The Taub Center for Israel Studies is set to be announced May 1 at NYU in Manhattan. The center will endow a chair in Israel studies, offer two research fellowships per year for doctoral students and support lectures and seminars. Established through a gift by the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation, the Taub Center will be housed within NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

Other schools that have added Israel studies offerings in recent years include Emory University in Atlanta, University of California at Berkeley, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and the University of Toronto. Usually situated within Jewish studies programs, Israel studies courses are filling what administrators say are serious gaps in the research of history, culture and politics of the Jewish state.

Those involved in this fledgling academic field attribute these gaps to a range of factors. Some point fingers at Middle Eastern studies programs that they claim are either hostile to Israel or narrowly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others put the onus squarely on the Jewish community for fashioning what they describe as Holocaust- and religion-heavy Jewish studies departments that are virtually Israel-free. All agree, however, that Israel scholarship must grow, especially given Israel’s spotlight on the international stage and the critical climate toward the Jewish state on several campuses.

“Imagine during the Soviet period no one studying about the Soviet Union,” said the chair of NYU’s Skirball Department, Lawrence Schiffman. But he was quick to stress that the new Israel center was not created to influence political perceptions at his university nor to bypass NYU’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, with which the Israel center is intended to collaborate.

Fred Lafer, president of the Taub Foundation, saw things differently: Lafer said the center would fill a “void” that he believes exists within Middle Eastern studies departments at NYU and elsewhere, which he claims teach courses “cast in an Arabic point of view.”

While Lafer said it was his foundation’s previous partnerships with Skirball that made the Jewish studies department a natural home for the Israel center, others in Israel studies say it is the alleged hostile environment within Middle East studies programs that is driving Israel-themed programs into the arms of Judaic studies centers.

Scholars of Middle Eastern studies programs deny that hostility exists within their halls and some say that Israel studies belong in their programs. The controversial past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, Joel Beinin, said that there is an “incorrect” perception that “people who do Middle East Studies are unfriendly to the Israeli point of view.”

“That perception presumes in the first place that there is a particular kind of point of view that needs to be represented, which is one among many,” said Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University in California.

Beinin is considered a critic of Israel, and his organization was the subject of Israeli-American scholar Martin Kramer’s scathing critique of the Middle Eastern studies field, “Ivory Towers of Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” The book’s 2001 publication ignited a controversy over the association, its role in academia and its presence on the federal dole.

Ilan Troen, who holds the new Stoll Chair in Israel studies at Brandeis, decried the dearth of Israel studies programs, and consequently the lack of Israel scholars, in the United States. “America has to do what it did several generations ago: It has to go abroad to find people,” said Troen, who was plucked from Israel to take his current position.

Another Israel scholar who strongly criticized the still meager Israel offerings at American universities today is Kenneth Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory. But Stein, who founded the institute in 1995, did not point fingers at Middle East centers.

“The burden of responsibly for the absence of Israel studies sits on the shoulders of American Jewry,” Stein said. Stein said that during the 1960s and 1970s Jewish academics made a choice “not to focus on the study of modern Israel. They decided to focus on the Holocaust instead.” American Jews connected to Israel through advocacy and philanthropy rather than academic inquiry, he said.

“One of the reasons Israel did not fare well on campuses these last few years is because students who otherwise came out of Jewish educational environments were inadequately prepared,” Stein said. “They did not know Israeli history. They did not know Israeli politics. They could argue contemporary political science, the intifada, Sharon, but ask them how the 1967 war came about, ask them about the reasons for Israel’s creation, ask them about how the Jews established the state in the 1920s and 1930s and they look at you with blank stares.”

“But rather than this being about who’s to blame, it’s about what you do or how do you go from here to correct a gap in a knowledge that exists in the Jewish community,” Stein said.

NYU’s Israel center is the latest attempt to do that, according to Robert Chazan, the new director of the center.

The center will be guided by an advisory board that will include philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Laurence Tisch. It will also collaborate with NYU’s Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. It will provide a dual master’s degree program jointly offered by the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the Skirball department and will sponsor special events at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

Chazan, the Scheuer professor of Jewish history at NYU, said the center is a remedy for “an obvious lacuna that we’ve been aware of for a long time.”

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